I started ballet classes when I was six, learning to force my body to conform to the standards around me. After I mastered “run, run, run, JUMP” it became clear that I didn’t have the right body to make it as a professional dancer.
I stuck with ballet well into my teen years, through the discomfort of wearing a leotard over a new body I didn’t recognize, a body that scared me. I couldn’t stop staring at my hips in the mirror. They looked miles wider than everyone else’s to me.
But I couldn’t deny that there was something wonderful about getting lost in the music, moving in concert with the sounds that I was hearing and feeling. Dance was like a call and response.
I stopped dancing as a teenager because I wanted to cut my hair (I needed to wear it in a bun), paint my nails and, frankly, stop demanding perfection from my movements, and my body. The ballet world is tight and sucked-in, each breath and step accounted for. I was ready to breathe more deeply.
Later, I left the ballet lessons I’d resumed because my knees gave up. My physical therapist thought I might be able to dance again, but I pretended not to hear her.
Last fall, I was struck by longing. I wanted to dance again.
My weak knees were wary of ballet, but when I found an adult dance class starting up at a former teacher’s studio, I had to go.
The classes were multi-genre: hip-hop, jazz, lyrical, burlesque, country, it changed weekly.
This terrified me.
For years, I’d danced while thinking about fourteen (or so) different things: pull up your knees, abdominal muscles in, think of a string attached to the ceiling lifting your head, lean slightly forward, lift your chest, soften your fingers, turn out your feet. Smile.
I’d taken summer workshops in my ballet years. The classes were mostly ballet, but there was the occasional tap, jazz, or modern class. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t loosen up. Not to African music, not to Britney Spears, or the Spice Girls.
But I’d always wanted to.
I would watch the other girls, so confident, so beautiful, and wish that I could move my hips like that.
That little girl walked into my first dance class, a hip-hop class. She was determined to give it her best, to see if it was possible for a ballet dancer with creaky knees to dance differently, to embrace freedom.
That first class was pretty clunky, as I recall. I watched my teacher, a dancer for a local football team, equipped with more energy than I have in a week. I tried to follow, and avoided looking in the mirror. In spite of how it might have looked, I was elated. It was good to be dancing again, but more than that, it was good to be dancing differently.
I kept coming back, embracing each genre as it came, letting go when class was over. I danced through Thriller, Blurred Lines, Madonna.
Early on, we did a burlesque dance to “Hey Big Spender.” There is a video, buried in the annals of YouTube, so I know that I didn’t look as flawless as I felt, but I will never forget that moment. I was beautiful, sexy, desirable.
I grew up afraid to love my body. For a long time, I avoided knowing much about it, and I’ve only recently enjoyed living in it. As I grew up hearing that my body might cause others to stumble, somehow I picked up the idea that it might cause me to stumble, as well.
I wanted to be holy, and like many before me, I bought into the lie that my body was not.
So I distanced myself from my human shell. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the splendid sensation of newly shaved legs against each other, or the sun on bare shoulders. I fought against the desire to be perceived as beautiful, I kept my hips in line.
It’s been a long journey back to myself. I’m still finding pieces of me, scattered far and wide. But I kept showing up, kept moving my hips, knowing that one day it would work.
It’s been over a year. This dance class has gone through phases (including a Britney month). Years of choreography have fallen away, somehow. I’m starting to feel the music and move accordingly.
My greatest fear used to be freestyle: that point in a dance where we had to do our own thing. I would always watch my teacher, or another student, emulating their movements instead of creating my own.
Somewhere along the way, that changed.
Now, I find myself improvising as she plays the music for warm up. I keep dancing, toward my water bottle, in between run-throughs, on the sidelines waiting to go across the floor.
The other day, one of the regulars said: “Your freestyles are always the best.”
Nothing like this has ever been said to me before.
Now, instead of telling me to loosen up, my teacher tells me how far I’ve come. I walk out of class, sweaty and spent, still high from the rush of strength, lightheaded from the endorphins. I let them wash over me, bringing a smile to my face. Sometimes I can’t resist a final shimmy, as I get in my car and drive away.
We’re making peace, my hips and I. They tell me that I am beautiful, desirable. They turn my head with their extravagance. I believe what they say.
Hips don’t lie.